NCF Nation: 081513 heisman sleepers

Could Petty be the next Manziel?

August, 15, 2013
Very few people knew the name Johnny Manziel at this time last year. Twelve months later, the Texas A&M quarterback is the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and sits in the center of the college football landscape.

This season, we’ll sit back and watch as other names emerge and become difference-makers or even Heisman Trophy contenders for their teams. The Big 12 is littered with candidates who fit the bill, but none of them seems more prepared to make that leap than Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty. And if the Bears can compete for the Big 12 title, don't be surprised if Petty can work his way into the Heisman conversation.

[+] EnlargeBryce Petty
Jerome Miron/USA TODAY SportsBaylor QB Bryce Petty has the tools and the talent around him to potentially become a Heisman candidate in 2013.
The junior quarterback has spent his college career as an apprentice to Robert Griffin III and Nick Florence, two of the conference’s most productive quarterbacks in the past two seasons. At 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, Petty brings great size and a live arm to the Bears’ backfield alongside running back Lache Seastrunk and has a deep group of talented, though somewhat inexperienced, receiving targets led by Tevin Reese.

Thanks to a talented surrounding cast, Petty doesn’t feel pressured to be as productive as Griffin and Florence.

“I really don’t,” he said. “I think that’s because [making plays] is what I was brought here to do. There’s no pressure to do that. I feel like the guys I have around me are going to make that happen, I just need to get the ball to them.”

The early returns are good for Petty, who was 11-of-16 for 166 yards and one touchdown in the Bears’ scrimmage on Aug. 10. He appears to be getting much more comfortable as a main man behind center.

“Bryce is more calm and collected,” Seastrunk said. “He’s making better decisions. It’s great to see.”

Petty isn’t the only relatively unknown name that could make major waves in the Big 12 in 2013. Here’s a look at one candidate from each school who could rise from unknown to game changer this season.

CB Charlie Rogers, Iowa State: The redshirt freshman is poised to start at cornerback. At 6-1, 202 pounds, Rogers brings unique size to the perimeter and has shown terrific improvement since he arrived in Ames, Iowa.

TE Jimmay Mundine, Kansas: The junior enters the season with 21 career receptions in two seasons but might be ready for a breakout season in 2013. He could emerge as the favorite target of quarterback Jake Heaps as teams focus on slowing running back James Sims.

S Dante Barnett, Kansas State: He played in all 13 games as a true freshman, recording 24 tackles while helping the Wildcats earn a BCS berth. He should embrace a much larger role as a sophomore in KSU’s secondary.

WR Sterling Shepard, Oklahoma: Shepard was so impressive as a freshman, he helped transform the Sooners’ offense into a four-receiver attack. He finished his first year with 45 receptions for 621 yards and three touchdowns and is poised to become a primary target alongside Jalen Saunders as a sophomore.

WR Jhajuan Seales, Oklahoma State: As the next Cowboy to don No. 81, the name Justin Blackmon looms over Seales’ shoulder. Fortunately for OSU, he seems to have the size, power and athleticism to rise to the occasion. The buzz in Stillwater says Seales is destined to be a game changer in the future. And the future could be as early as this year.

WR Daje Johnson, Texas: Every time he touched the football as a true freshman, he was electric. With the Longhorns turning up the tempo, it could provide Johnson more opportunities to use his game-breaking speed to terrorize defenders.

RB Aaron Green, TCU: A well-known name out of high school, Green sat out last season after transferring from Nebraska. Even though the Horned Frogs have some quality running backs already in the fold, it wouldn’t be shocking to see Green rise to the top of the depth chart and emerge as one of the Big 12’s top runners.

LB Micah Awe, Texas Tech: One of two true freshmen to escape a redshirt season for the Red Raiders in 2012, Awe is poised to start at linebacker as a sophomore. With natural football instincts, a physical mentality and leadership skills, he could be the anchor of the Red Raiders' defense.

WR Mario Alford, West Virginia: The junior college transfer could help Mountaineers fans get over the loss of Tavon Austin. At 5-9, 175 pounds, Alford is another quick, versatile talent at the disposal of Dana Holgorsen.
A year ago, things were much different for Johnny Manziel and college football as a whole. The country hadn't yet figured out who he was. And neither had he. Johnny Football hadn't yet been born.

The breathtaking plays, the otherworldly athleticism, the Sharpie-saturated scandal -- none of it had begun to devour College Station midway through fall camp in 2012. We were still wondering how Texas A&M would adjust to the SEC, not the other way around.

It felt like the league had finally caught its breath from Cam Newton's unexpected romp through the conference when Manziel came along, first winning the Aggies' starting quarterback job and then the Heisman Trophy. His ascension was as swift as it was unpredictable. He didn't look the part of a superstar, but he could sure play it. At 6-foot in stilettos, Manziel was a ballroom dancer on the football field, only no one else could figure out the steps.

Can anyone catch on to his act this year? No one knows.

Can anyone duplicate his success? Maybe.

With that in mind, here's a look at some sleeper candidates to pull off a Manziel-like rise from a no-name commodity to a player on the tip of everyone's tongue:

[+] EnlargeMike Davis
Curtis Wilson/USA TODAY SportsAfter averaging 5.3 yards a carry in spot duty last season, and with a huge line in front of him, Gamecocks running back Mike Davis is poised for a big year.
Mike Davis, RB, South Carolina: Steve Spurrier put it best when he went on the ESPN airwaves and told the "First Take" desk, "You don't know much about Mike Davis, but watch him play this year." The 5-foot-9, 215-pound sophomore filled in admirably for Marcus Lattimore when he went down, rushing for 5.3 yards per carry. With a mammoth offensive line -- the smallest of the projected starters coming in at 314 pounds -- South Carolina has to feel good about Davis' potential.

Jordan Jenkins, LB, Georgia: Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree got all the attention, but Jenkins was a quiet force on the Georgia defense as a freshman last season. At 6-3 and 246 pounds and with the speed of a safety, Jenkins aims to improve on his five sacks and set his sights on the school's single-season sack record of 14.5 that Jones set a year ago. If he reaches that goal and Georgia is in the SEC championship game again, Bulldogs fans will know who to thank.

Brandon Williams, RB, Texas A&M: Watch the Aggies long enough this season and your attention will inevitably be turned in two directions: to Manziel and his speedy tailback. Williams, a transfer from Oklahoma, hasn't won the starting job just yet, but give him time. With his burst, he'll be a threat to score every time he touches the football.

Tre'Davious White, DB, LSU: He's just a true freshman, but White is the type of cornerback LSU has become known for. Big, athletic and physical, he has the upside of former Tigers great Morris Claiborne. And like Claiborne, White came out of Shreveport, La., and knows a thing or two about playing with an edge.

Denzel Devall, LB, Alabama: Alabama has been something like Linebacker U in recent years, with Rolando McClain, Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw starring at the position. And though C.J. Mosley certainly fits the bill of an All-American talent, he's not as physically imposing as his predecessors. Devall is. At a solid 6-2 and 250 pounds, Devall has the size and the talent to be a force at linebacker for the Tide this season.

Nick Marshall or Jeremy Johnson, QBs, Auburn: It's down to either Marshall or Johnson, and whomever Auburn ends up with will have the talent to make plays in Gus Malzahn's offense. Johnson has an NFL arm, according to the new coach. Marshall brings more of a running flair to his game, a former Georgia cornerback who went the junior college route to end up on The Plains. Both are raw, but with some polishing they could be playmakers in the SEC.

Matt Jones, RB, Florida: If Will Muschamp's revitalization of power football really is complete in Gainesville, then Jones will be looked on as the final piece to the puzzle. A bowling ball of a runner, Jones brings a north-south style of play to a Gators backfield that has too long gone sideline to sideline. Up to 226 pounds after backing up Mike Gillislee last year, Jones has the size to shoulder the load and a coaching staff willing to let him do it.

Joshua Dobbs, QB, Tennesee: He may be a year off, but Dobbs is the type of quarterback who could revitalize the Tennessee fan base with his ability to make big plays with his arm and his feet. Though a true freshman, he has a leg up on his competition in that he's not a typical pro-style passer recruited by coaches from bygone eras. First-year coach Butch Jones is looking for a fresh start at Tennessee, and he could be tempted to dive in head-first with Dobbs, who has the size and athleticism that's perfect for his up-tempo scheme.
Let's face it: Not too many preseason Heisman lists in recent years featured Johnny Manziel, Robert Griffin III or Cam Newton. And while there are plenty of returning stars among this year's Heisman hopefuls, it's always safe to bet on at least one or two unfamiliar faces ending up in New York in December.

Who could rise out of nowhere this year? Let's take a look at some candidates in the ACC.

Jameis Winston, Florida State QB: There is an awful lot of hype for a guy who has yet to take a college football snap. Then again, Winston was the No. 1 quarterback recruit from the Class of 2012, eclipses 100 mph on the baseball diamond as a Seminoles reliever, throws footballs over fraternity houses and starred in FSU's spring game. The redshirt freshman steps into an ideal situation, surrounded by experienced guys on an offense that is coming off an Orange Bowl win. And, well, he absolutely owned FSU's media day Sunday.

Taquan Mizzell, Virginia RB: The Cavaliers struggled running the ball last season, finishing 96th nationally in rushing yards per game (128.5). They have also said goodbye to Clifton Richardson, Perry Jones and Phillip Sims. Enter "Smoke" -- or, as coach Mike London has called him since a victorious 1-on-1 hoops game, "Mist." ESPN's No. 9 running back prospect from the Class of 2013 notched 1,231 yards and 39 total touchdowns last season at Bayside (Va.) High, and he figures to make his presence felt early at Virginia.

Anthony Boone, Duke QB: Yes, Boone is a redshirt junior. But he was behind school record-setter Sean Renfree the past two seasons, as he watched Renfree take Duke to a bowl game last year while receiving spot duty here and there. He relived an injured Renfree and rushed for a go-ahead, fourth-quarter touchdown in a win at Wake Forest, then started a week later in a rout of Virginia. For his career, Boone has completed 53.4 percent of his passes in 22 games for 839 yards with six touchdowns and three picks. He also adds another dimension on the ground, having rushed for 211 yards and six more scores. Boone now has the starting job to himself, and teammates have said there is little indication that they are playing with a first-year starter.
Who is this year’s Johnny Manziel in the Pac-12? In other words, which player could come out of nowhere and win the Heisman from the conference? Well, if we knew, he wouldn't be coming out of nowhere in the preseason, now, would he?

Perhaps it is better that the Pac-12’s elite players are coasting below Mr. Heisman's persnickety radar. After all, front-runner status hasn't been kind to the Pac-12 the past couple of years. Two seasons ago it was Andrew Luck -- a shoo-in from the day he announced his return to take home the Heisman. Last year, it was Matt Barkley who had the unpropitious front-runner title pegged on him.

Luck carried the title much longer in his final season. Barkley, however, quickly gave way to Geno Smith, who in turn gave way to Collin Klein, who in turn fell to Johnny Football.

[+] EnlargeMarion Grice
Cary Edmondson/USA TODAY SportsArizona State's Marion Grice averaged 6.6 yards per carry and had 11 touchdowns last season.
So how about the Pac-12?

Marcusy Football?

Marqy Football?

DATy Football?

Ka’Deemy Football?

Bretty Football?

Not exactly phonetically pleasing.

Within the Pac-12, there aren't many dark-horse candidates. There are some front-runners who immediately come to mind: Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and De’Anthony Thomas, USC’s Marqise Lee, Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey and UCLA’s Brett Hundley. But none of them are considered national front-runners with Manziel (maybe?) back to defend his title, Braxton Miller coming off a perfect season, AJ McCarron and his ridiculous 30-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio last year and Teddy Bridgewater soaking up his share of hype.

You can make a case for all five in the preseason. Mariota and Thomas will be playing for a top-five team, which always helps garner the necessary attention from the national media, and they should continue to put up video game numbers. Hundley is one of the most exciting players in the league, and with a year of maturity, many are anxious to see just how far he can lead the Bruins. Lee was last year’s Biletnikoff winner and is arguably the top skill player in the country. Carey was last year’s national leader in rushing. Solid credentials for all.

But this is about the sleepers. The guys who are so under the radar they're practically stealth. So who are they?

You have to start with ASU’s Marion Grice, who is going to continue putting up fantastic dual-threat numbers as a runner and receiver. He’s packed on more weight and ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said they've expanded the playbook now that he and quarterback Taylor Kelly are a year into the system. (Probably not a bad idea to keep an eye on Kelly, either).

Stanford’s Kevin Hogan could also be a sleeper. Like the Oregon duo, he’ll be on a high-profile team that is going to get plenty of national exposure with showdowns against Oregon, UCLA, USC and Notre Dame on the 2013 docket. He’s not as flashy as the other players and his numbers might not be as lofty, but he’s asked to do a lot more behind the scenes than a lot of other quarterbacks. That was Luck’s brilliance, as well as his Heisman curse.

The appearance of Manti Te’o in New York last year proved defensive players aren't immune to getting some attention in the spread era. So UCLA’s Anthony Barr and ASU’s Will Sutton certainly deserve to be in the conversation if we’re talking defensive players. Both should be atop the national defensive rankings in sacks and tackles for a loss. But both will have to play well enough to surpass the well-deserved hype of South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney and overcome the public perception of the Pac-12 when it comes to defense. As I’ve written previously, the Heisman is all about subjectivity and perception. (Full disclosure, I have Clowney No. 1 on my preseason Heisman ballot).

Finally, a guy who I think is really a long shot -- but should be getting more love than he is -- is Oregon State running back Storm Woods. In the Beavers’ first six games against FBS opponents in 2013, they face only one defense that ranked in the top 20 last year in total rushing yards allowed (Utah), and only one other in the top 50 (San Diego State). The opportunity will be there early in the season for Woods to make a name for himself. He’s got four of five offensive linemen coming back (including an outstanding center), an offense that wants to be more balanced, and a quarterback-to-be-named who is a veteran and knows the offense. He’s also really, really good.

It’s probably best not to put all your hopes into one of these guys winning the Heisman. For now, it’s safer to track the conference front-runners. But don’t sleep on these guys, either.

The next Stormy Football is just waiting to breakout.

Heisman sleepers in the Big Ten

August, 15, 2013
It may be hard to remember, now that seemingly every sentence written about college football these days has to include some reference to Johnny Manziel, but this time a year ago, Johnny Football was hardly known outside of College Station. He was a redshirt freshman who hadn't played a down of college football and wasn't anywhere near the Heisman Trophy radar; the NSA might not have even been keeping track of his phone calls.

All of which is a long way of saying that Heisman winners can come from virtually out of nowhere. Robert Griffin III and Cam Newton weren't exactly favorites heading into their Heisman seasons, either. So while the Big Ten has some obvious contenders, such as Ohio State's Braxton Miller, Nebraska's Taylor Martinez and possibly even Northwestern running back Venric Mark, there are other guys who could make the giant leap from sleeper to stiff-arm trophy holder. When considering such candidates, we're really only looking at quarterbacks and running backs, since the past 15 Heisman winners have played one of those two positions.

The list:

Devin Gardner, QB, Michigan: OK, he's not really a secret to Big Ten fans. But nationally Gardner is still a little bit of an unknown as he played quarterback for just five games last season. He put up really big numbers during that span, and if he can do that over a whole season, he might stay in the Heisman race longer than Denard Robinson ever did.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
AP Photo/Michael ConroyCould running back Melvin Gordon win Wisconsin's third Heisman Trophy in school history?
Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin Badgers coaches and players have touted Gordon as possibly the most talented back to come through Madison, and that's really saying something. He averaged 10 yards per carry last season, and while we wouldn't expect him to surpass Montee Ball's ridiculous numbers, Wisconsin ball carriers usually have impressive stats.

Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska: Again, he's not much of a sleeper for fans around the league. But most national observers think of Martinez first in the Nebraska backfield. Abdullah ran for more than 1,000 yards last season and is also a dangerous kick returner. If he can make some electrifying plays on the big stage as part of a powerful Huskers offense, who knows?

Dontre Wilson, RB/WR, Ohio State, and Christian Hackenberg, QB, Penn State: Normally, we'd never consider putting freshmen on a list like this, because that seems like way too much pressure and hype for unproven players. And yet Manziel just won the Heisman in his first year of collegiate action. Wilson has drawn rave reviews for his speed early on at Buckeyes camp and could be used in a variety of ways, while Hackenberg has a great chance to win the Penn State job out of the gate and lead Bill O'Brien's quarterback-friendly offense.